A new rapid prototyping program supercharges Army capabilities.
by Vanessa Pittman and Brandon Little-Darku
In late 2016, the secretary of the Army approved the first project for the newly formed Army Rapid Capabilities Office: electronic warfare systems for Soldiers on the front lines of deterrence in Europe. A companion project, providing position, navigation and timing capabilities, followed soon after. But receiving rapid approval also meant that as the projects progressed during 2017, existing funding sources didn’t quite cover the bill.
Both efforts were in direct response to operational needs statements from U.S. Army Europe, so time was of the essence. Waiting until the next budget cycle would be risky.
Instead, the Rapid Capabilities Office, now the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO), turned its attention to a new and, at the time, little-known program within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The 2017 Department of Defense Appropriations Act included $100 million for a rapid prototyping program, which became the new OSD Rapid Prototyping Program.
The RCCTO applied for the funds in the summer of 2017, hoping they could serve as the catalyst to get both projects to the next level of development. By August, OSD had selected eight projects from across the services to receive funding through the Rapid Prototyping Program. The RCCTO received funding for both electronic warfare and position, navigation and timing—the only Army organization to receive funds that year.
In the spring of 2018, the RCCTO submitted additional requests and received FY18 funds for optical augmentation technology, which will provide Army scouts the ability to detect adversary weapon systems, increasing vehicle protection and survivability. With each project, the Rapid Prototyping Program has increased the pace of progress and served as a key partner in the Army’s successful development of needed capabilities.
A NEW PROTOTYPING PARTNERSHIP
Established in 2017, OSD’s Rapid Prototyping Program is designed to accelerate services’ and defense agencies’ prototyping by reducing technical and integration risk, establishing affordable and realistic requirements for programs of record, and supporting timely development of fieldable prototypes—all to enable rapid modernization. The fund is structured to support the unique model of prototyping, which recognizes that a particular capability is not a “one size fits all” answer to be fielded and sustained universally across a service. Instead, a prototype capability provides an interim solution that targets a specific need, incorporating Soldier feedback and technology advances to inform longer-term solutions.
The Rapid Prototyping Program seeks a new set of innovative projects annually, only awards research, development, test and evaluation funds, and has a relatively small budget. In its first year, it awarded approximately $100 million to eight programs. In FY18, it provided approximately $50 million to four programs. In its third year, the program awarded approximately $80 million to a slate of projects in April.
The program is open to applicants across the armed services. The process generally starts in August, when applicants are asked to submit a white paper that outlines the project for which they’re seeking funding. The paper includes a project description, the objective, what the capability will accomplish and why it’s relevant to today’s threat environment and modernization efforts. Applicants also provide funding needs and plans, key participants, transition and post-prototyping strategy, project schedule, risk mitigation and metrics. Each white paper is evaluated by the Rapid Prototyping Program Office, experts across DOD and a cross-functional team of representatives from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, and the Joint Staff. Winning entries are announced early in each calendar year.
After the selection phase ends, the execution process begins. Winning project leads from the services meet with program representatives. They review each project and its funding requirements in detail, making any necessary updates that may have occurred after the submission. Once a funding decision is received, the project officially kicks off, and the Rapid Prototyping Program can send funding directly and quickly to the contract agents on the project’s behalf.
Throughout the process, the project managers keep the program informed via monthly updates of upcoming milestones, tests or funding issues. Included in the monthly status report is information on how much of the funding has been obligated or disbursed to date, broken down by individual funding request. Also, the Rapid Prototyping Program Office hosts a midyear program review with each project to receive more detailed information. OSD, in turn, regularly reports to Congress on the projects’ progress.
EXECUTING THE PROTOTYPE PARTNERSHIP
The Army RCCTO selected its projects for proposals to the Rapid Prototyping Program carefully: Not only did it choose projects approved by its board of directors, which is led by the secretary of the Army, but it also picked projects that were in direct response to operational needs statements. In other words, the capabilities for which the RCCTO sought OSD support were true rapid prototypes and not standard research and development efforts. Supported by Army leadership, they would to go directly into the hands of Soldiers.
With OSD’s help, the Army is delivering on each of these efforts.
Its first project, electronic warfare capabilities for brigade and below, fulfilled the operational needs statement from U.S. Army Europe by providing integrated prototype equipment for electronic support and electronic attack. Teaming up with the Project Manager for Electronic Warfare and Cyber (PM EW&C) within the Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors (PEO IEW&S), the RCCTO delivered the first phase of the capabilities in less than 12 months. After using the money awarded by the Rapid Prototyping Program for the second phase of the project, the acquisition team continues to partner with receiving units in Europe to infuse new technology as it becomes available, to quickly deliver incremental upgrades and to inform the long-term electronic warfare programs of record. This effort was recently selected by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment as a winner of the 2018 David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Award. (See related article, “The Making of a Packard,” Page 10 in the Spring 2019 issue of Army AL&T.)
The RCCTO also used the Rapid Prototyping Program to advance its position, navigation and timing project. Designed in partnership with the Army’s Position, Navigation and Timing Cross-Functional Team and the Project Manager for Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PM PNT), the capability—also known as Project TITAN—will provide independent timing capability if the GPS signal is denied or unavailable, and adds more robust antennas to improve signal reception in a contested environment and support freedom of maneuver. In October 2018, the RCCTO and PM PNT tested several capability elements that make up Project TITAN. This test will inform future fielding decisions, including a possible urgent materiel release for the first fielding of resilient position, navigation and timing equipment to the European theater.
In FY18, the RCCTO received funds through the Rapid Prototyping Program for its optical augmentation project, which adds optical imaging sensors to high-performance weapons platforms. This effort, a partnership with the Project Manager for Terrestrial Sensors within PEO IEW&S and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command C5ISR Center (formally the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center), is conducting rapid prototyping and risk reduction to enable Army scouts to detect adversary weapons, increasing vehicle protection and survivability. The project will produce an integrated prototype that will use the opposition’s optical and imaging sensors to locate and target enemy platforms. The team completed a system requirements review in December 2018 and is continuing design work and completion of the initial prototypes for testing.
While all of the RCCTO projects benefited considerably from the Rapid Prototyping Program, each yielded its own nuances in execution and lessons learned. For example, the electronic warfare and position, navigation and timing efforts required OSD to distribute the funds across multiple contracts to acquire almost a dozen technologies that make up the integrated solutions. Precise timing for these purchases and constant communication with users enabled the Army and OSD to manage this complexity, and to incorporate operational changes and subtle shifts in requirements as technology advanced. The optical augmentation project was simpler from a contracting perspective but less mature in its technical development, so the Rapid Prototyping Program financed more prototyping, integration and evaluation to get the technology ready.
For the RCCTO, using the Rapid Prototyping Program funds also yielded lessons on how to best apply new rapid prototyping authorities and dollars in partnership with OSD. Most important to the process was keeping lines of communication open. Working through monthly status reports together, informing OSD of any upcoming training or testing events, remaining flexible and being forthcoming with information, such as changes to the capability, helped build relationships and ensured a smooth path for a still-evolving modernization concept.
Now, a fund the RCCTO originally targeted as a short-term fix for its first two projects is becoming an enduring relationship and a solution to help the Army bring urgently needed prototypes to the field.
For more information on the RCCTO, go to: https://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil/.
VANESSA PITTMAN is the business manager for the RCCTO. She holds an M.S. in business administration from Lawrence Technological University and a B.S. in business administration from Oakland University. She is Level III certified in business – cost estimating and in business – financial management and Level II certified in program management.
BRANDON LITTLE-DARKU is a project lead for the RCCTO. He holds an M.S. in electrical engineering from Boston University and a B.S. in electrical engineering from Norfolk State University. He is Level III certified in engineering and in program management.. .